Wake County Schools

Blog: Wake schools opt for variable suspensions for student violators

Administrators who have been studying changes in disciplinary procedures with an eye to keeping students in school and raising graduation rates had asked for flexibility.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The Wake County school board on Tuesday is holding its one and, under a new policy, only voting meeting for September.

The board last month dropped its two-meeting-a-month practice and at the same time abolished its standing committees.

The board held a work session before its voting meeting Tuesday and has one other work session set for Sept. 21.

Critics have charged that eliminating a voting meeting each month cuts in half time for public comments, which are taken only at the voting sessions. The board discussed that during its work session Tuesday, but did not up any changes then.

In other action, the board was asked to approve a policy change that gives administrators more leeway in deciding how long students should be suspended for behavior violations.

5:30 p.m. -- The board approved cleaning and recycling contracts for school cafeterias. Both contracts are for less than the system paid last year to other vendors, the staff reported.

Member John Tedesco questioned whether a system with 140,000 students could not generate enough recyclables to make money rather than have to pay for pickups. Staff said the district is working with the county to try to get to that goal, and it does now sell used cooking oil rather than pay for disposal.

Don Haydon, the district facilities director, told Tedesco that having recycling in 159 locations works against getting paid for the material if it were in fewer locations.

The recycling contract is going to Grime Control Cleaning Service. Sanitech Systems Inc. got the contract for cleaning materials, including detergent used to clean the cafeterias.

5:25 p.m. -- The board approved renewal of property insurance policy that the district gets through a state pool for $3.1 million and a liability policy. Staff said the system is looking at options for self-insuring to save money on premiums, and the policies approved Tuesday have 30-day and 60-day cancellation provisions if that looks like a better plan.
5:00 p.m. -- The board failed to allocate savings of $2.4 million from six current construction projects to design work for two elementary schools and a middle school. In a somewhat complicated parliamentary move, the board was being asked to undo a previous vote. A motion to make the change had been prepared ahead of time and was on the board's agenda, but no one would second it, and there was no vote.
4:49 p.m. -- With no discussion during its voting meeting, the school board gave final approval to a policy change that allows administrators to decide the length of a long-term suspension for a student. Previously, any suspension of more than 10 days had to be for the remainder of the school year.

Minutes later, the board voted 5-1 for a new program that delegates authority to the superintendent to decide to reduce the time of long-term suspensions imposed by principals or change them short-term if mitigating factors support that. The board had discussed the changes during its work session earlier in the day, along with other changes the staff wants to implement in discipline and punishment.

The negative vote came from member Debra Goldman, who had expressed concern about the new program possibly conflicting with existing policy.

Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens had told the board earlier that the changes would take effect in the spring.

4:30 p.m. -- For the first time in three meetings, there were no arrests during the the public comment period of a school board meeting. In the board's two previous meetings, some speakers had overstayed their time at the microphone and then refused to leave, and police had taken them away in handcuffs. Tuesday's meeting brought criticism of the board by some speakers, but no demonstrations.

During the comment period, Anne Sherron of Raleigh, addressing the proposal to change suspensions for behavior violations, asked that a victim of an altercation in school should be told if the suspended student is coming back or has a reduced punishment and will not leave school.

"Sometimes it's good to ask why policies are written," she told the board. She urged creation of more alternative school room for students who have multiple problems that lead to bad behavior.

Sherron is a community member of the board's Student Assignment Committee.

Adrienne Lumpkin of Raleigh criticized student achievement data that some board members have said demonstrate that busing for diversity has not helped students from poor areas do better in school.

Diana Bader of Cary asked the board why it is moving ahead with some schools and not with others it has planned, and she questioned whether political affiliations with people who operate charter schools in parts of the county were involved.

Ann Overton of Garner questioned how the district's magnet-school program will continue if those schools become base schools for larger student bodies under an assignment plan being worked out. Magnet schools are largely in high-poverty areas as a way to draw a diverse student body into them. In addition, students from the areas around the schools are sometimes bused to other schools for the same reason.

In shifting to a community-based assignment plan from one that tried to diversify schools, the magnet schools may have more local students than they can accommodate.

Rev. Steve Hickle of Raleigh told the board he was standing for the powerless as part of his Christian ministry. "There is no way to mask the division of a single community into the wealthy and the impoverished," he said.

"We can do better" by putting the needs of all students first, Hickle said.

Pam Bowden of Raleigh told the board that the community was tired of its being divided in a series of 5-4 votes on policy changes and wants the board to find a way to bring people together. About changing the way students are assigned, she said the board had not looked at the financial implications.

"If it is not your intent to create high-poverty schools, it should be written into the school plan," Debbie Biesade of Fuquay-Varina told the board.

Jim Martin of Apex, an N.C. State University chemistry professor and frequent critic of the board's decision-making on student-assignment policy, told the board that the district's data show that poverty is the characteristic that correlates most closely with poor achievement in school. "Socioeconomic factors must be part of any assignment policy."

Lettice Rhodes of Raleigh criticized board Chairman Ron Margiotta, who regularly breaks 4-4 ties to vote with advocates of policy changes, that he "wields that vote like a mighty sword." She also attacked the board majority for voting on the basis of their own opinions."

Lauren Frey, a student at Enloe High School, spoke in favor of keeping diversity as part of assignment policy. "Separate is not equal," Frey said, adding she believes the board majority listens to narrow interests.

3:40 p.m. -- Member Debra Goldman used her time to speak for what she said was a response to numerous e-mails and calls she had received about her support of a community-based assignment policy implemented by a board majority, including her, elected last year.

Goldman, whose children have or do go to public schools, lives in Cary. Her children were moved in assignments, she said, but she added, "We were the ones being bused out of our neighborhood" for better schools and diversity at Panther Creek High School.  "Really?" she asked. Her family picked its home knowing what schools it thought the children would attend, she said.

"I support community-based schools.... I also support the magnet school system.... I support focusing on equity and stability" for every Wake student, Goldman said. "Every student should have a base assignment" so parents can plan on where their children will go. "Our assignment policy is strong and should be viewed as what it is -- an assignment policy," she said.

"My focus was, is and will continue to be on the level of academic achievement" of all Wake students, Goldman added.

3:30 p.m. -- The board opened its formal meeting, the last two of which have seen arrests of speakers who were protesting the district's move away from a diversity-based student-assignment policy. Four uniformed Raleigh police officers were at the meeting, fewer than at several recent meetings.

Margiotta said in opening remarks that Wake is "an overall outstanding district" and has several "pockets of excellence." However, continuous improvement includes admitting where things are not working, he said, including graduation rates that are not where the district wants to be.

"On Aug. 26," Margiotta said, "several new initiatives intended to improve student performance" were announced at Knightdale High School. There also is an in-school suspension system in place to keep children in school, he said.

"We can make improvements for our schools and our students even within a very tight budget," Margiotta said.

3:05 p.m. -- The board got a report that said the district ended irrigation of sports fields this year because of budget cuts. Some schools turned to other sources, such as booster clubs, to pay for it, the report said.

"That has just come down on the same groups of parents" who always volunteer, member Debra Goldman said. "This is something I feel strongly about," she said, adding that poor-quality fields pose a risk of injury.

Costs for irrigating high school fields vary with local water costs, but range from $3,000 to $12,000 per season per school, Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent in the facilities department, reported. At East Wake High School, however, the cost is $30,000 because of higher water charges there.

Chairman Ron Margiotta noted that not watering fields has long-term effects on them, prompting Goldman to ask, "Are we going to shut down our athletic programs?"

District Athletic Director Bobby Guthrie said schools began looking at how to handle the problem in March, when a preliminary budget came out. The schools hoped to make plans to get through one year, he said.

"The  business case that stopped the irrigation was for one year," Chief Business Officer David Neter said, but prospects for returning to normal care of fields looks unlikely.

2:45 p.m. -- Finance director David Neter briefed the board on $27.7 million the district is getting as part of recent federal job-saving legislation and noted that the district faces a budget "cliff" when $48 million of American Resource and Recovery Act (ARRA) funding disappears in the 2011-12 budget year.

The state also will get federal Race to the Top money, but help for school districts appears largely to be in the form of "capacity and infrastructure," but not cash districts can spend. The state has not said what it plans to do with the money, Neter said, but he has read the state's winning application and tried to discern what the grant will fund.

"That's the good news," Neter said, and the district staff is looking at less rosy news for other funding for the next budget year.

"The outlook for next year is not so good" for the economy, Neter said. "I'm sorry." Economists' unemployment estimates remain high through 2011, perhaps 9 percent, he said. He noted, however, that Wake County's rate was lower than state and national rates in July, he said.

Meanwhile, the state expects a budget shortfall of more than $3 billion next year, Neter said, representing about a 16 percent drop from the current spending plan.

The state Budget Office has directed all agencies to prepare plans for cutting their budgets 5 percent, 10 percent and 15 percent for 2011-12. "As far as we know, the Department of Public Instruction" is included, Neter said.

The district knew ARRA money would end, Neter said, but there will be decisions to be made about jobs filled under ARRA and benefits that those employees might be entitled to after federal money stops.

The Wake system also expects to lose another $41 million in federal stabilization funding that the state passed through to the district one time for the 2010-11 year, Neter said. That will affect funding for clerical and custodial staffs, he explained.

The staff is going to assume flat funding from County Commissioners again for 2011-12 to develop a budget, Neter said. But, Neter warned, getting the same county money will require budget cuts because there will be two new schools opened and an estimated 3,700 more students.

"All significant slack" has already been cut, Neter said, "and we're still facing a Stage 5 hurricane -- and right in the eye."

The board will get a proposed budget at the beginning of March, Neter said.

2:25 p.m. -- Interim Superintendent Donna Hargens briefed the board on proposed to suspension-policy changes that she said come after 18 months of study and would give administrators the authority to make long-term student suspensions last less than the remainder of a school year.

"We want to keep students in school by reducing the number and length of long-term suspensions," Hargens said. The board approved that change once at its last meeting and needs a second vote to put it into effect.

The only suspensions in the system currently are less than 10 days, for the rest of a school year and 365 calendar days.

The staff, Hargens said, recommend doing away with zero-tolerance "except where required by law." The district wants to give principals leeway on suspensions but still provide guidelines on how to decide them, Hargens said. The administration also wants to investigate ways to have more education alternatives for suspended students, she said.

The changes are part of a plan to revise at least 15 district policies, Hargens said.

Fifteen policies mandate long-term suspensions, she said. State law, however, only mandates those penalties for bomb threats and having a firearm on a school campus, Hargens said.

She said the proposed new approach would only mandate long-term suspensions when the law requires it. There would be no other "zero-tolerance" offenses, she said, and there would be two categories of offenses. One, Hargens said, would require short-term suspensions of less than 10 days, but principals could recommend long-term penalties if he or she felt circumstances warranted it.

Principals also could find that long-term suspensions might be reduced under certain circumstances, such as a student being only slightly involved in an offense.

Changes that Hargens asked the board to approve later Tuesday also would give the superintendent power to reduce long-term suspensions if a review committee suggested that. Students and families who want to appeal disciplinary penalties now have to ask for a hearing before the school board, and that option would remain after a superintendent's decision.

All of the changes would take effect at the start of the spring 2011 semester, Hargens said.

"Only a few" violations in schools would still draw long-term suspensions, board attorney Ann Majestic told the board. State law has never been as strict as many school districts' policies, she said, and many districts have said that "long-term" could only mean the rest of a school year. A state Supreme Court decision in the 1970s about students' rights to due process resulted in the 10-day mark for defining short- and long-term suspensions, she said.

Member John Tedesco said the issue of having students out of school for discipline is "near and dear to my heart." He said he believed Hargens had community support for the changes. "I'd like to encourage all my colleagues" to support the plan, he said.

Reducing penalties, Tedesco said, can help keep students in school and eventually raise graduation rates.

Hargens said the plan would create a matrix of offenses and possible penalties for them so principals would know their options and could be consistent from one school to another.

Member Debra Goldman noted that delegating authority to the superintendent goes against existing policy, and Majestic agreed that the board probably would need a policy suspension.

"It seems a little bit cart before the horse" to begin making some changes before changes to all 15 policies are ready, Goldman said. If the new system that Majestic described as a"pilot" results in lower penalties that the board does not support when it reviews all the policies, stiffer penalties would return.

"Yes, that might make it tougher for the next guy" than for a student who drew a lesser penalty under the current proposal, Majestic said.

McLaurin and member Kevin Hill said they want to know what it will cost to add alternative programs for students who are not thrown out of school altogether, and Hargens said administrators are working on that and on how to find existing funds for them. The board has set a $1.4 billion 2010-11 budget that already required cuts in personnel and services.

1:40 p.m.

-- The board discussed whether and how to implement electronic sign-up for speaking at monthly board meetings as well as the traditional in-person sign-up before meetings. All speakers at board meetings have to sign up before the public comment session of meetings.

District communications chief Michael Evans said the staff could make online sign-up work, but he pointed out issues that had come up during a meeting of the board's public relations committee. Online sign-up too far in advance could result in people signing up but then not coming or getting all the early slots for speakers.

Board policy has been for speakers to have two minutes each and to require them to speak about items on the day's agenda. Arrests at the two prior board meetings have come after speakers came to the microphone during meetings and would not leave it.

Evans said online sign-ups could keep time and date stamps to identify the order of speakers. He said it also would be possible to show visitors to the sign-up list online to see how many people were ahead of them.

Member Debra Goldman suggested opening online sign-ups the day of meetings at which comments will be taken. Member Anne McLaurin said the board should schedule an hour of comment time at meetings because it will meet only half as frequently.

Chairman Ron Margiotta said the board has often waived the 30-minute limit, deciding during the meeting when to put remaining speakers off until other business is finished. He did not endorse McLaurin's idea, but stressed that "there is no 30-minute restriction anywhere" on speakers.

The board's agenda for Tuesday's voting meeting stated, however, "After 30 minutes of public comment, any speakers remaining will be recognized at the end of the agenda for their comments."

The board will provide laptop computers at its offices for people who cannot sign up elsewhere.

1:25 p.m. -- The board opened its work session with a discussion of its new calendar, hearing proposed dates set up by the staff after the meeting policy changed. In trying to work out board meeting times for hearings on student discipline, personnel and other closed hearings, the staff set some for mornings and some for afternoons. Five members told the staff they preferred mornings while four said afternoons were better, the staff said. The schedule alternates those options.

For board meetings, member Anne McLaurin asked about possibly having public comment at board non-voting work sessions to make up for reduced time because the board is cutting back to once a month on its voting meetings, which include a half-hour of public comment during the meeting and time for all remaining speakers at the end.

Chairman Ron Margiotta said it would be hard to accommodate comments at work sessions, at least at first, though he described the schedule change as a "work in progress," which he had called it when he proposed the idea this summer.

"I think work sessions will be pretty heavy," Margiotta said.

The proposed schedule called for work sessions, where all members attend and speak but do not act on proposals, to be at 1 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of the month, though holidays disrupt that somewhat.

Voting meetings would be on the first Tuesday of each month. The proposal keeps the standard 3 p.m. starting time for those sessions, though member John Tedesco raised the possibility of a 6 p.m. start to facilitate public attendance.

Margiotta said the board would revisit times at its Sept. 21 work session.


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